Pet projects: more wrong than right

Tom Munday

Once you have reached the bright lights and stardom Hollywood entails, you can get lost in its overwhelming sheen. Superstars, after a lifetime of big-budget content, have fewer and fewer people able to say ‘no’. The top actors, writers and directors are given all the leeway in the world once reaching a certain status. Once in a while, their most beloved ideas come to fruition favourably. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln almost went to HBO. The Oscar-winner’s clout finally pushed it into theatres and Oscar buzz.

For every overwhelming success story, there are three examples of self-indulgence gone awry. Rich and famous people usually drive these productions before sending them skidding off the rails. In fact, many have an exact moment where they fall over. With the release of Luc Besson’s long-gestating Valerian, here are a few examples of pet projects that came, saw and conquered nothing. It’s these examples that prove someone should always tell the emperor whenever they have no clothes on.

The Mummy (2017)

05 June - Mummy

Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise was given the keys to Universal’s kingdom of classic monsters. The a-lister’s string of action movies – from sci-fi blockbusters Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow to action franchises Mission Impossible and Jack Reacher – gave the studio confidence that he could deliver. Their thinking: Really, what can’t he do? The movie was supposed to kick off the Dark Universe, giving the Mummy, Dracula, Wolfman, Frankenstein etc. their own movies before bringing them together to fight an even bigger evil. Hype built before release, with acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz taking that now infamous photo of Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp.

Sadly, The Mummy was released to the sad, faint sound of crickets and tumbleweeds. Critics and audiences destroyed this franchise starter/killer for its forgettable story, unlikeable lead characters and all-around stupidity. In addition, the universe building took control of the narrative in the second act. What should have been this franchise’s Iron Man ended up dead on arrival. Since its June release, numerous think-pieces and news reports and delved into what went wrong. Multiple reports suggested Cruise himself was to blame, seen to have more control of production, post-production and marketing than many had first thought. Whether it was Cruise’s responsibility, The Mummy marks one of 2017’s most embarrassing misfires.

After Earth (2013)

After Earth

From another mega-rich superstar to another, we go to a 2013 sci-fi flick with enormous potential and woeful execution. Will Smith is still regarded as one of Tinseltown’s most popular and charismatic performers. The actor, rapper and producer is not shy to taking on blockbusters, teary dramas and everyone in between. We first saw he and his son Jaden in true-story/heart-warming drama The Pursuit of Happyness, earning the Fresh Prince an Oscar nomination. Despite not winning for his efforts, Smith and son delivered dedicated performances living up to hype. Following Jaden’s Karate Kid and Day the Earth Stood Still appearances, the Smiths turned up together for M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth.

The premise was intriguing; a spaceship captain/warrior and his son crash land on a dangerous labyrinth formerly known as Earth. However, the final product was full of plot-holes, emotionless characters and excruciating dialogue. It was difficult finding the right person to blame for the critical and commercial disaster. M. Night Shyamalan was an easy target, having delivered The Happening, The Last Airbender and Lady in the Water beforehand to lacklustre reviews. Like with The Mummy, rumours arose of the lead actor’s controlling behaviour. Hearsay of Smith’s involvement in the story, screenplay, casting direction and promotional material painted a picture of the movie’s patchy development. Smith and co. have since accepted that After Earth was a classic example of nepotism gone too far.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch

Action-adventure director Zack Snyder has earned his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most visually arresting, but polarising filmmakers. His adaptations of Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen earned him enough power to develop any project at his disposal. They exceeded expectations thanks to Snyder’s sumptuous cinematography, with sequences that took audiences by surprise. Sucker Punch looked set to be Snyder’s ode to girl power, anime and every blockbuster convention known to man. Based on an original concept, the end result proved Snyder was lost without pre-established material to draw from and adapt for the screen.

Sucker Punch is an eleven-year-old boy’s gross, underwhelming wet dream padded out to two hours. Even describing the premise would make anyone icky. Five girls are stuck in an insane asylum. During their stay, they are forced to conduct dance recitals for men to drool over. During their routines, the group transcends time and space to enter steampunk dreamscapes complete with robot samurais, war-torn lands, and robots. Critics and audiences savaged the movie’s bonkers storytelling and fetishistic imagery. Snyder’s vision forgets logic of any kind, instead throwing a slew of influences together without explanation of consistency. The movie’s dark, oppressive, uninspired aura illustrates just how boring it is to watch other people playing video games.

Why do they fail?

There are plenty of examples I could have picked for this list. Movies like The Water Diviner, The Man With the Iron Fist, Beyond the Sea, Battlefield Earth, Alexander and Gangs of New York are classic examples of lead actors/big directors content with getting their way and forgetting about the audience. Many of these movies failed critically and commercially. The aforementioned failures also all share fascinating production and post-production stories. They detail how just how out of touch some Hollywood heavyweights are. These examples – on a narrative and thematic level – appeal to the people involved and barely anyone else. Peculiar choices, script revisions and production issues will more than likely distort and warp what could have been something special.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures & Roadshow Films

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